‘A Bloody Dawn’ – An Irishwoman’s Diary on the Irish at D-Day

Patrick “Paddy” Gillen was 17 years old when he left home in Galway to join the British army in 1943.

The following year, 75 years ago this June 6th, he landed on Sword Beach, Normandy, as part of the greatest armada in history.

“We began to pour out of the landing craft in single file, with weapons kept above our heads to keep them dry,” Gillen told Dan Harvey, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Defence Forces and the author of A Bloody Dawn, The Irish at D-Day.

Harvey wrote the book while in residence at the Irish College in Paris, where it was launched on May 28th.


“We were moving as fast as our pack-laden bodies would carry us, and I saw many bodies floating in the sea and lying on the beach,” Gillen recalled. “We didn’t find out until later that night who was dead, wounded or missing from our unit.”

Gillen, who died in December 2014, “was the first second World War veteran I interviewed at length, and he was so noble and humble about it,” Harvey says.

Historians estimate conservatively that 120,000 Irishmen, 70,000 from the neutral South and 50,000 from Northern Ireland, fought with British, Canadian and US forces.

Gillen’s 6th Commando Brigade was asked to support glider-borne commandos who had secured Pegasus Bridge, 12 km away. German troops were dug in only 500 yards from their encampment at Saulnier Farm.

They took artillery fire every night.

By the time they were redeployed 42 days later, more than half the brigade had been killed or wounded.

German sniper fire instilled lasting dread in Gillen.

As anyone who has been in a war knows, aerial and artillery bombardment are terrifying, but sniper fire is personal.

“The whole thing was to move fast. Not to be an object for snipers because if they picked you out you were likely to soon be dead or wounded... They used to say, if you want to see your grandchildren, then get off the landing craft faster than (Olympic sprinter) Jessie Owens”.

Gillen was wounded three times and told his children he only survived only through the luck of the Irish.

He later found a job at the Ford factory in Cork, married, raised a family and joined the Irish Defence Forces reserve.

“After the war, jobs were difficult to get and they certainly weren’t being given to people who joined the British army,” says Harvey.

In 2012, then-minister for defence Alan Shatter pardoned 4,983 soldiers who deserted from the Irish Defence Forces to fight the Axis powers. Yet officialdom is still reluctant to recognise the bravery and sacrifice of Irish combatants in the second World War, Harvey says.

“We have just seen four years of commemoration of the Irish in the first World War,” Harvey continues. “It has now become acceptable to talk about that, but not about participating in the second World War, because of the confused ambiguity of our neutrality.”

Harvey calls Irish neutrality “a sacred cow... an artificial construct that was never meant to be”.

Éamon de Valera chose it for purely practical reasons, he says.

“It wasn’t debated until later. It’s not enshrined in the Constitution.”

Though officially neutral, Ireland was “secretly pro-Allies,” says Harvey. It shared weather reports and intelligence, and allowed downed British and US airmen to slip across the Border, while detaining German pilots at the Curragh.

Irish men and women made a significant contribution to the war effort. Irishman Brendan Bracken was Winston Churchill’s closest aide. Kathleen MacCarthy-Morrogh, from Baltimore, Co Cork, better known as Kay Summersby, became the driver – and probably the mistress – of Eisenhower.

London-born Irishman Michael Morris, (later Lord Killanin) and Gen Percy Hobart, who was also Irish, developed specially adapted armour used on D-Day. It included mine-clearing tanks, equipment to lay tracks over tank-traps, tanks mounted with bunker-busting high-calibre guns, and one of the first amphibious tanks.

Richard Hayes, then director of Ireland’s National Library, was a skilled mathematician who was fluent in German.

Working with Col Dan Bryan, the head of Irish military intelligence, Hayes solved the Goertz Cipher, which had defied 16 British MI5 staff at Bletchley Park.

Michael Morris’s wife, Mary Sheila Cathcart Dunlop, from Oughterard, Co Galway, was awarded an MBE for helping to break the German Enigma code.

As senior deputy director of Combined Operations for the Royal Navy, Rickard Charlie Donovan, from Ballymore, Ferns, Co Wexford, was a prominent planner of the D-Day landings.

“Donovan was decorated by the Americans and the British,” Harvey notes.

“It always irked him that he was never honoured at home. Irish servicemen kept quiet when they returned. Imagine, they saved Europe from such evil, and they were never honoured in their homeland... As a State, we have to acknowledge them and give them due recognition.”